Hurricane Ike's projected path shifted away from the Tampa Bay area on Saturday, but meteorologists warned that it's too early to conclude that the powerful storm won't be a threat.
The National Hurricane Center reported that Ike grew to a Category 4 storm with 135 mph winds on Saturday and could strengthen even more before hitting eastern Cuba this afternoon.
Computer models started showing the storm following a more southern track, which would lead Ike across the length of Cuba before emerging in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico as a much weaker storm. Once it's over those 90-degree waters, the storm could intensify again.
"The reason it's too early is it'll all depend on what path it takes once it gets into the gulf," said Brian McClure, Bay News 9 meteorologist. "We're definitely not out of the woods yet."
The west coast of Florida still lies within the storm's five-day forecast range. The Hurricane Center predicted Ike would weaken into a Category 1 hurricane as it crosses Cuba, then regenerate into a Category 3 in the middle of the gulf on Thursday. Some computer models showed it heading to Texas, while one curved it north to follow Florida's west coast.
The biggest variable that could steer the storm is a cold front that's moving east across the country. Currently, Ike is traveling along the southern edge of a high-pressure area over the Atlantic Ocean. The cold front, which brings low pressure, could push the high pressure to the east, allowing Ike to make a turn to the north.
Still, most models concluded the front wouldn't be powerful enough to pull the storm north.
Ike is also expected to slow down, making the forecast for western Florida even more unpredictable.
"Eventually it will be making a landfall somewhere," said Roger Pierce, a meteorologist at the Hurricane Center. "It's just that it's beyond the five-day period. We can only forecast with any accuracy out to five days."
With Ike still hundreds of miles and days away from the peninsula, Gov. Charlie Crist touched on the uncertainty in meetings with mayors and emergency officials.
"These storms have a mind of their own," he said. "There are no rules, so what we have to do is be prepared, be smart, vigilant and alert."
Visitors to the Florida Keys were under a mandatory evacuation order Saturday, and a light but steady stream of traffic rolled out of Key West ahead of the storm.
Preparations stretched more than 1,000 miles, from normally idyllic island chains in the Caribbean through Florida and the Gulf Coast. First in Ike's path was the low-lying British territory of Turks and Caicos, already pummeled for four days last week by Tropical Storm Hanna.
Also on guard was Louisiana, still recovering from last week's Hurricane Gustav. Gov. Bobby Jindal set up a task force to prepare for the possibility of a new round of havoc.
"We're not hoping for another strike, another storm, but we're ready," he said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.